Svalbard, Norway is one of the northernmost towns in the world. Approximately 700 miles from the North Pole, this is a place that requires intentional living. Norwegians have this figured out, of course. To live in Svalbard takes commitment. That’s why it’s a natural fit for a commitment of an entirely different sort, located approximately 15 miles outside of town. There, carved out of solid stone on the side of a rocky embankment, intrepid travelers will find the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, underwritten by the Norwegian government.
There’s no other way to put it: it’s cold in Svalbard. What’s more, the facility describes something of a science-fiction trope. There is no plumbing. There are no offices. There are no amenities or facilities for people to spend leisure time or even do extended amounts of work. Visitor to the seed bank enter a large door dug into the low part of a long escarpment, and then must traverse a roughly hewn tunnel with a number of air lock doors until reaching the vault. Despite the arctic temperatures all around the facility outside, the air inside is refrigerated even further. Kept at approximately 0°F, more than 900,000 varieties of seeds from all over the world sleep in carefully labeled containers placed on rows of sturdy shelves.
That’s it. That’s all that’s there. Nothing else happens.
That’s a lot, however. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a repository for life on earth. And before you wonder how that could be, how elephants and sea turtles and butterflies have anything to do with dormant seeds, consider that these seeds are the backbone of agriculture. Life may endure in the oceans, covering more than seventy percent of the worlds surface, but in terms of life that has anything to do with humanity, seeds constitute the core.
In many ways this is also a massive demonstration of human innovation. It’s is a great creative declaration, a leap in inspired stewardship for the future. Rather then building a gleaming glass and steel laboratory in a large academic or government setting somewhere, the northern seed vault, locked in ice, far from anywhere easily accessible, is all about continuity. The seed vault is a declaration against our own worst proclivities as a species. If you think that sounds apocalyptic, one only need look at the history of humanity. We are not very good at taking care of ourselves. History is full of wars, conflagrations, depredations, and degradations. We are notorious for fouling our own nests. We are good at wrecking the place, and wrecking each other in the process, both at scales both macro and micro. Some parts of humanity are good at inventing alternatives, but unfortunately, history has a way of wearing them down.
A crude case study could be the expanse of years defined by World War II. If we try to sequester our thinking from the most obvious horrors of those years, the mind reels at the inevitable losses of unrecoverable paintings, manuscript, sculptures, architecture, and future potential. In fact, try as we might we cannot (and should not) sequester our thoughts from the great human toll, the countless numbers full of hope and light and creative spirit who ceased to exist. Ground into time’s dust by the travails of of war, the aspect of our collective achievements disappeared in a relative instant. History asks us a question from it’s inimitably impeccable perspective: what do our actions ultimately prove that we value more? Conflict, of course. War. Faced with a philosophical choice, humanity turned away from saving undiscovered musical scores from great masters when there were cities to burn instead and bodies to toss over the ravine.
The seed vault in the far north is an attempt to forestall our worst.
Some of the seeds housed there will not endure more than about a century, on ice, in the dark. They will need to be replaced periodically to ensure their continuity. That means that samples of those seeds will need to be extracted from the vault and grown somewhere in a fertile space so that they can generate new seeds to be shipped back to the frozen Arctic. Some of the seeds there will last for as long as 20,000 years. These too will be periodically grown somewhere, and then recycled back to their Norwegian redoubt, but the principle is the same for all. The seed vault is a place to protect ourselves from ourselves.
The creative moment here is not so much about the facility, or the extraordinary commitment supported by the Norwegian government, or the international committee assembled to manage the collection, the coordination of samples, and all of the human interventions that must, inevitably, take place in laboratories and offices far, far away. The creative moment here is in the invention of the whole concept. There is a stroke of genius in realizing that the facility doesn’t need to be more than what they built. You don’t need offices there, because offices require people, and people require maintenance, and people can often be the biggest problem of all. The creative moment was in convincing other sound minded, rational people, to take a big step and commit to this creative effort. The creative moment was to simply build a vault in the first place, because given enough time, we might just foul up our own seed stock, too.
There’s something politically ironic about the fact that the tiny residents of this facility are themselves repositories of ideas. Some people may chafe at the anthropomorphic aspects of that description, but conceptually speaking, the seeds are simply packages of information, shaped over millennia by evolutionary forces. These seeds are the creative results of life doing what it does best, namely solving problems for getting to the next day. The human stewards of this facility recognize that it will not endure without continued commitments from governments around the world. Even carved into a remote, frozen cliff face, this facility cannot last without regular assistance and intervention. But considering how this is a creative endeavor that simply cannot fail, especially in the shadow of our grim collective historical tendency to destroy rather than preserve, it’s a clever piece of cultural invention. Artistic disciplines routinely use the tools of science, of course, but art is ultimately about saying something that tries to describe and refract the vicissitudes of life. Creative work is ultimately about transcending the limits of the day. Science uses the philosophical—and sometimes tangible—tools of artists to find expressive ways to ask questions and consider alternatives. It’s not idealistic naiveté to question why these two broad pursuits—arts and sciences—are so often co-opted for destructive purposes. Humanity cannot really claim a higher order of evolution until it overcomes its first-order tendencies to suppress, restrict, and ultimately destroy.
That’s why, somewhere in Norway, in the dark and in the cold, the seeds of our better selves are sleeping.